Michael Kostka has no idea how often he’ll be in the Blackhawks lineup. So every time he’s out there, he knows the margin for error is minuscule if he wants to stay out there.
“Sure, but I feel the stakes have always been kind of high,” said Kostka, who will make his Hawks debut Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. “For me, it’s always been a bit of a proving ground. I think everyone has that sense about it, but maybe with the route I’ve taken, I feel that way a little more. Especially when you have two other defensemen here who can play, it might make it feel a little more important that you go out and have a good showing.”
Kostka is in a three-way battle for playing time, as he, Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank compete for the sixth defenseman spot. It’s Rozsival’s spot, but Hawks coach Joel Quenneville has said he wants to limit the regular-season toll on the 35-year-old, meaning either Kostka or Brookbank —or both — will get plenty of chances.
Kostka, a 27-year-old blue-liner who played 35 games last season as a rookie for the Maple Leafs, caught Quenneville’s eye and earned a surprise roster spot out of training camp.
“He can play offensively, and defensively, I think he’s involved,” Quenneville said. “He’s got some speed on the back end and can join in the attack. He’s got good play recognition, he’s got a decent gap and [by giving] him a chance to get into the lineup early this season, we’ll get a better assessment.”
Kostka played on the power play in the American Hockey League and in Toronto, and might be able to shake up the Hawks’ long-suffering unit. Kostka said he was more of a shooter on the power play in the AHL, but that he’s become more of a playmaker in the NHL since “there are guys here that have better shots than I.”
“That’s a part of the game that I enjoy playing, and I feel like it’s an asset I can bring,” Kostka said. “Obviously, there’s a depth of guys who can play in that role here, so I’m not necessarily expecting to come in and get that opportunity right away.”
Kostka’s not expecting to come in and secure an every day spot right away, certainly not based on one game. He’s been in a platoon role for much of his professional career, and knows how to maintain his conditioning and timing in such a situation.
“You learn to be professional and just stay on top of it,” he said. “Practices here are so quick and sharp, it’s about as close to a game as you’re going to get without contact. So that helps, as well.
As for making his regular-season debut at the United Center, Kostka — who knows a little something about playing in front of fevered crowds from his Toronto days — is excited for the opportunity.
“This place is awesome,” he said. “The crowd is unbelievable. That’s something that you can use or can be used against you if you get too excited. I’m excited to hopefully use it in a positive way. There’s nothing better than playing in front of 22,000 screaming fans that are cheering for you and not against you.”
NOTEWORTHY: Ben Smith will make his season debut tonight, with Jimmy Hayes out of the lineup. Michal Handzus also will be in the lineup after suffering an undisclosed injury in Tuesday’s opener. Corey Crawford will start in goal for the Hawks.